I’m staring down a steep, vertical drop, straddling a narrow ridgeline with my snowboard strapped to my feet. My buddies and I have hiked a ways to ride a secluded backcountry section of a ski area, and it’s freezing. I’m having second thoughts as the wind howls up the mountain, whooshing over the ridge with a resolute intensity.
I ratchet my binding straps tighter and anxiously watch my buddies drop in, one after the other, until I’m the last one left up there. There is no backing out at this point. Deep breath. Focus on the line. You can do this.
I nudge my toeside over the edge and I’m fully committed. I barely make the critical section on my left, my body readjusting automatically. Then a hollow “whump” — the precursor to an avalanche. You’re hearing things. Focus your fear.
And just like that it’s over, my heart racing, my lungs gasping for air, as we head for another steep pine-studded section. What a rush!
A wise friend of mine argues that going big and taking risks is a simple form of dementia. She reasons that animals instinctively understand the difference between jumping off a cliff and not jumping off a cliff. Animals wouldn’t float a Class V river or scale a granite wall without ropes or paddle for a 30-foot wave. Humans, the ultimate thinking creature, disregard this instinctual behavior in an effort to satisfy an urge or a goal. And this is just plain stupid, she contends.
Psychologists seem to generally agree with my friend’s observations, applying the straightforward stance that extreme sport athletes and calculated risk takers are troubled in a sense. Hailing from the sensation-seeking theory school of thought, this body of science has found similarities between the brains of drug addicts and the brains of people who jump out of planes. Interesting stuff, really.
And then several years ago, writer Brian Handwerk posed the all-important question in a National Geographic News article: “What is it that drives some to embrace extreme risks, while the rest of us scurry for the safety of the sidelines?”
They’re putting too much thought into this conundrum. I’ll tell you what drives some to embrace extreme risks: your adrenaline gland working in overdrive. Facing your fear. Accomplishing a daring challenge. Feeling the progression. The moment when we all “feel alive.”
In extreme sports, pushing your limits is the name of the game. It is a condition some experts might call the law of diminishing returns, where achieving the same goal time and time again will no longer induce the same rush. It’s why I dropped in off that narrow ridge, for it represented a bigger challenge, and hence a bigger return. It’s why anyone who skis, snowboards, skates, surfs, whitewater kayaks, or whatever can’t wait to get back out there. Taking big risks may seem silly to the outsider, but the feeling is transcendental.
In fact, psychologist who interviewed a group of whitewater kayakers found that their subjects experienced a heightened sense of awareness when under intense pressure, as if in a meditative state.
But where do we draw the line between finding Zen and death? Every so often you’ll hear about the ride that went wrong, when even the pros die. The extreme sports world is put in check, if only for a moment. We lament the loss and contemplate the dicey situations we’ve faced, but the first word of clean surf or deep pow and it’s on. Oftentimes what death represents for extreme sports is an athlete whose bar was raised too high. Which is why it’s crucial, to me at least, that you know your limits. And shred like there’s no tomorrow. Spoken like a true madman.
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